Two East African Toponyms: A Case Study in Intercultural Transmission of Knowledge

Marina Tolmacheva


Toponyms of the East African coast present a recorded illustration of the multicultural environment of the Indian Ocean in its western part. A number of historical locations have been identified on the basis of modern or archaeological evidence corresponding to place names found in the written sources ranging from Antiquity to the contemporary era. From the Horn of Africa to the Swahili coast to Mozambique, the East African coast has been marked by a certain geographical stability of urban centres and port locations. Some of the modern cities still carry the names first recorded in the 10th century C.E., while some medieval toponyms may be correlated to locations first listed in ancient Greek sources.
The present paper will examine two examples from the extensive toponymical record for the East African coast. The major cultural traditions related to the place names and their recorded history in the written sources of the past centuries are generally known. Medieval Arabic sources provide the bulk of written information about the region in the pre-Portuguese era. The paper acknowledges some differences between the evidence of academic Islamic geography and the information provided by Arab travellers and navigators. The sources reveal a degree of stability in the inventory of the recorded place names despite the historical changes on the coast. Analysis reveals a complex picture of historical and language-based patterns of knowledge transmission in the trans-cultural oceanic environment.
Keywords: East Africa history, Indian Ocean history, historical geography, environmental history, onomastics

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